England coach Hope Powell.

by Richard Brook

The FA launched their Game Changer plan for women’s football in England earlier this week, with the express aim of building on the platform of enthusiasm that was created by the sport, during the London Olympic Games. The games saw a combined attendance of 660,986 for women’s football, of which I was one at what was briefly known as the City of Coventry Stadium for Great Britain’s game against Canada. The final of the games attracted the second highest attendance for a women’s game ever, as 80,203 fans saw USA emerge victorious in their encounter with Japan.

The FA are keen to build upon their achievements under their previous strategy which was effective 2008 – 2012, with the five year Game Changer plan being implemented from 2013 – 2018. The FA want to harness the wave of enthusiasm at grass roots level, created by the quality of play and the national interest in the sport which the Olympics provided. Alongside this runs an aim of consolidating and strengthening England’s national women’s football teams.

There have been many notable achievements, in the women’s sport, during the last four year phase. England reached the final of the 2009 European Championships and were quarter-finalists at consecutive World Cup’s in 2007 and 2011. Great Britain competed at an Olympics for the first time and again reached the quarter-finals with viewing figures peaking during their Brazil match at 3.9 million. In addition to this England players were given centralised FA contracts, and the FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) was established as a semi-professional national league. The sport is flourishing at junior levels too, with England’s Under-19’s winning the European tournament for their age group, and the Under-17’s tournament to be hosted here in 2014.

The last four years have seen the grass roots sport striding forward as well. Sport England’s ‘Active People’ statistics suggest that some 253,600 women play football every month. This confirms women’s football as the number one team sport amongst women. It also makes women’s football the fourth largest team sport overall, after men’s football, rugby and cricket. During the period since 2008 the number of registered girls teams grew from 4,500 to 5,143, 114 pan-disability teams were set up and adult teams increased from 1,179 to 1,437. Female coaches have almost doubled in numbers with around 25,000 being the latest figure and the qualified female referees have increased from 636 to 1,035. A number of skills programmes for youngsters have seen good take up rates by girls. 31 centres of excellence and 29 player development centres were set up to develop the most talented young players in the country. All in all women’s football present and future sounds in good shape even ahead of the Game Changer plan.

Over the course of the five year plan, the start of which coincides with the organisation’s 20th year running  the women’s game, the FA anticipate investing £3.5 million into women’s football with a view to further strengthening the infrastructure of the sport. The FA are looking increase the number of women’s and girl’s teams further, continue supporting talented girls at grass roots level through centres of excellence and player development centres, introduce an Elite Performance Unit to develop the country’s leading talents, continue funding central contacts for senior England players and to gain greater exposure for the FA WSL.

The plan is to make this happen using the following five steps. Create the Elite Performance Unit, Deliver a new commercial strategy, Develop the FA WSL, Grow participation and Grow the fan-base.

The new Elite Performance Unit (EPU) will be based at the recently opened St George’s Park. There will be a new role within the sport based at the EPU, Head of Elite Women’s Development. The goal is to preserve England’s status as one of the top international teams by streamlining the development path from youth to senior football, for both players and coaches. The EPU being based in the new Burton-upon-Trent site will have access to the state of the art facilities that St George’s Park has to offer on its 330 acre site. The EPU’s focus will be on producing the best young players and philosophy to be entitled ‘The Future Game’ for the development of the young players of the future. The overall aim is for all age’s of the national team to qualify and achieve podium finishes at all major tournaments.

The FA are also looking to build a separate commercial strategy for the women’s game to take advantage of the ever-growing interest from commercial organisations and the media. The natural opportunity exists to increase the game’s profile and revenue streams and it only makes sense to grasp that with both hands. The commercial and broadcast rights for England Women, The FA Women’s Cup and The FA WSL will be disposed of separately to those for the men’s game. The purpose of this is to create a strong identity for the women’s game distinct from that of men’s football.

The FA WSL was launched in March 2011 as a semi-professional competition for England’s best women footballers. As well as increasing the standard of play, the league makes it easier for players to play in this country as opposed to looking for opportunities abroad. The FA WSL secured sponsorship and a broadcast deal with ESPN for a weekly highlights show and some live coverage. The plan is for the FA to expand the league to include a second division in 2014. The FA has pledged to support up to 20 beacon clubs across the two divisions who will work with the centres of excellence to provide pathways for talented players to progress.

The FA is less clear as yet when it comes to increasing participation, with details of these plans to follow in 2013, working with Sport England, key partners and sponsors. This could mean, that as has been successful in the past the FA using sponsored road shows and skills courses to encourage young people to take up the sport. They have also stated an intention to address issues regarding women taking up sport identified by their own research. Notable goals in this regard include developing and implementing 50 County FA plans to grow women’s and girls football to provide a clear development pathway for every County FA and also to work to prevent girls dropping out of football around the age of 14 by increasing the range opportunities.

The Olympic Games is the perfect springboard for the FA’s final goal of growing the fan-base. The average attendance of an FA WSL game is around 550 over the last two seasons, with England home games attracting around 5,000. Recent research indicates that 75% of adults want to see increased media coverage for women’s football now the Olympics have ended. The FA believes that the game can see the fan-base increase through media and broadcast means and through the promotion of female players as role models. The key point that the FA have identified is to create a clear rolling calendar of competitions and events for potential fans to follow.

All in all the FA’s plan promises great things and it is to be hoped it can deliver further improvements to the game. I was one of the people caught up in the Olympic Football tournaments for both men and women and thoroughly enjoyed my first taste of women’s football at London 2012. As a father that spends most Saturday mornings watching his lads take part in training with Bilton Ajax development squad, and explaining to his two year old, Sheffield Wednesday obsessed, daughter that she is not allowed to go and join in until she is five, it is pleasing to think that the grass roots game is so high on the FA’s agenda, and that she will have a much improved chance to get involved in football, than girls of my own generation, if she still wants to by that age.

The FA are going to invest £3.5 million in women’s football by 2018. That is not bad going for a sport that the same association banned as “unsuitable for women” in 1921. What a difference 97 years makes.